Sermon illustrations


For Whom the Bell Tolls

While lying in bed due to a serious illness, the poet and pastor John Donne heard over and over again the funeral bells at his church, which would ring to announce the death of someone in the parish. Ill and away from his ministry, he was therefore unaware of the goings-on in his church and who had “shuffled off this mortal coil,” so to speak.  With each ring of the bell, Donne wondered, “Who is it that has died?”

After some time, he finally answered himself, “Never send to know for whom the bell tolls; it tolls for thee.”

Why, we might ask? It is because “No man is an island, entire of itself.”

And he continued:

“Each is a piece of the continent,

a part of the main;

if a clod be washed away by the sea,

Europe is the less…

Each man’s death diminishes me,

For I am involved in mankind.”

As J. Ellsworth Kalas notes in his short book on the Ten Commandments, Death makes each involved less than they once were. As Kalas notes, “Both my neighbor and I are part of the mainland of life; if my neighbor dies, I am the less, and if I die, my neighbor is, to some degree, impoverished.”

Stuart Strachan Jr., Source Material from J. Ellsworth Kalas, The Ten Commandments From the Backside, Abingdon Press, 2013.

The Gift That Inspired a Lifetime of Giving

Tracy Autler’s life changed in a very unexpected way on Thanksgiving Day, 1993. Tracy was a single mother, living in an apartment in a rough neighborhood, she was doing her best to raise a three-year old while preparing for the birth of her second child, at that point, 8 months pregnant. Living off of welfare and food stamps, her Thanksgiving dinner would not be the sumptuous feast many Americans at that time were preparing. Hers was primarily comprised of canned food. Or at least, that is how she expected to “enjoy” her Thanksgiving dinner.

Staring at the canned food on her shelf, Tracy heard a knock at the door. “Who could that be?” she wondered. She wasn’t expecting any company. No friends, no family would be joining her and her three-year old. At the door was a man from a local restaurant, holding what would be a full Thanksgiving meal, given to her by an anonymous donor. Tracy was so surprised; she spent the rest of the day crying. But more than anything she wanted to know who had given such a thoughtful gift.

Years went by and Tracy still hadn’t figured out who had provided this mysterious Thanksgiving meal. After a period of time, Tracy was able to move out of the apartment, and at the same time began working as a nurse at a nearby hospital.

Seven years later, working at the hospital, Tracy Autler was to discover who had provided that amazing Thanksgiving meal. That day, an elderly woman named Margo appeared at the hospital. It was clear Margo did not have long to live. Margo had lived in the same apartment building as Tracy all those years back, and three days before the end of her life, she took Tracy’s hands, and whispered, “Happy Thanksgiving.”

As author Brad Forsma describes:

In that moment Tracy knew who had given her that Thanksgiving dinner. She would never have guessed that Margot—the unassuming neighbor with multiple sclerosis—was behind that generous gift.

…That one gift had a massive impact on Tracy’s life. Moved by the anonymous donor’s generosity, Tracy purposed in her heart to do generous things for other people too. The very day she got off assistance, she took a basket of gifts down to the welfare office for anyone to take. The welfare officer was stunned. Can you imagine the look on his face? Who does something like that? And that was just the beginning.

Since then, Tracy and her husband have become foster parents and adopted a son. She regularly looks for opportunities to give. The last time I heard from her, she was getting ready to volunteer her Saturday afternoon at the local Humane Society. One of her latest ideas is to leave five-dollar Starbucks gift cards with little notes for her coworkers to find, just to make their day better. This year Tracy and her family made a New Year’s resolution to find one hundred opportunities to give to other people.

How inspiring is that? What I appreciate most about Tracy is that she doesn’t do her giving to be noticed by others. Since that Thanksgiving Day in 1993, she has discovered the joy that comes from giving. Now she’s hooked. She doesn’t give to make herself look good—she gives because she likes giving.

Brad Formsma, I Like Giving, The Crown Publishing Group.

Human Nature: Fighting Our Neighbors

In the sixteenth century, there were close to seventy wars involving the nations and states of Europe. The Danes fought the Swedes. The Poles fought the Teutonic Knights. The Ottomans fought the Venetians. The Spanish fought the French—and on and on. If there was a pattern to the endless conflict, it was that battles overwhelmingly involved neighbors.

You fought the person directly across the border, who had always been directly across your border. Or you fought someone inside your own borders: the Ottoman War of 1509 was between two brothers. Throughout the majority of human history, encounters—hostile or otherwise—were rarely between strangers. The people you met and fought often believed in the same God as you, built their buildings and organized their cities in the same way you did, fought their wars with the same weapons according to the same rules.

Malcolm Gladwell, Talking to Strangers: What We Should Know about the People We Don’t Know, Little, Brown, and Co, 2019.

Losing His Neighbor in Worship

At a worship service I attended a couple of years ago, my attention was drawn to the enthusiastic worship leader. He opened our time with prayer, asking God to meet us and draw us together in the Lord’s presence. Then he turned around to face forward, standing just in front of the first row of worshipers with his eyes closed and the band playing.

He lifted his hands and offered his joyful praise to God. That’s when I really took notice, for as he sang so rapturously, he kept stepping all over the feet of the people behind him. Not just once or twice but repeatedly throughout the singing in the two-hour service, he kept “tromping in the spirit.” No apology. No sign of acknowledgment. He was just praising God while oblivious to his neighbor.

This illustration metaphorically and practically depicts a significant part of our problem. I have no doubt the worship leader would say that what he was doing was unintentional. He was just so caught up in his own experience of worship that he lost track of others. In worship, he lost his neighbor. That’s exactly the problem. For all our apparent passion about God, in the end much of our worship seems to be mostly about us.

Taken from The Dangerous Act of Worship by Mark Labberton Copyright (c) 2007 by Mark Labberton. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

More Isolated than Ever

Whether young or old, Americans are feeling more isolated. According to a recent study from the Pew Research Center, about half of Americans have weekly interactions with their neighbors, which means half of us don’t. A survey by AARP found about one-third of respondents over the age of forty-five are lonely. And according to the American Psychological Association, loneliness and social isolation have similar effects on health as obesity and can lead to premature death.

No surprise, social media doesn’t help the feelings of isolation. We can have serious fear of missing out (FOMO) when it seems we aren’t invited to the places everyone else is (or even have the same number of likes or comments as someone else). The opposite is also true. When we replace a virtual meet-up with a real one, we can decrease our actual isolation.

Alexandra Kuykendall, Loving My Actual Neighbor, Baker Publishing Group, 2019, p. 15.

Moving to the Front Yard

Tom and Angela had lived in their neighborhood for about twelve years without really getting to know many people. They lived in a cul-de-sac of eleven houses and had limited communication and interaction with the people around them. They admitted that this felt strange because they really had a desire to know their neighbors better, but nobody was making the first move…A number of years went by until finally Tom and Angela decided to do something.

One of the biggest factors that had been preventing them from engaging their neighbors was timidity. ..They began by taking one simple step. They switched yards. Their kids had always played in the backyard, and that setting was the social hub of the family. So Tom and Angela simply switched to the front yard. They put up a swing in a front-yard tree and added some lawn chairs; that was about it. Nothing happened at first. Then over the next few weeks, children and even dogs began to migrate into their front yard.

Eventually adults followed. Soon both kids and adults were spending more time in their front yard than they could ever have imagined. And all they had done to attract this traffic was hang out where they could be seen. Then Tom and Angela decided to go a step further by organizing a series of block parties. Surprisingly, the first one they held went over quite well. All the neighbors really needed was someone to step forward and break the ice. Other parties followed…The results were powerful. Barriers were broken down, and people started getting to know each other. Soon they were inviting one another into their homes. Neighbors began to assist neighbors in various ways…

Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside your Door, Baker.

The Resurrected Bunny

A woman looked out the window of her home and was horrified to see her German Shepherd shaking the life out of the neighbor’s pet rabbit. Her family had been quarreling with these neighbors; this was certainly going to make matters worse.

She grabbed a broom and ran outside, pummeling the pooch until he dropped the rabbit now covered with dog-spit—and extremely dead.

What was she going to do?

The woman lifted the rabbit with the end of the broom and brought it into the house. She dumped its lifeless body into the bathtub and turned on the shower. When the water running off the rabbit was clean, she rolled him over and rinsed the other side.

Now she had a plan. She found her hair-dryer and blew the rabbit dry. Using an old comb, she groomed the rabbit until he looked pretty good. Then, when the neighbor wasn’t looking, she hopped over the fence, sneaked across the back yard, and propped him up in his cage. No way was she taking the blame for this thing!

About an hour later, she heard screams coming from the neighbor’s yard. She ran outside, pretending she didn’t know what was going on.  Her neighbor came running to the fence. All the blood had drained from her face. “Our rabbit, our rabbit!” she blubbered. “He died two weeks ago, we buried him, and now he’s back!”

Ken Davis, Lighten Up!: Great Stories from One of America’s Favorite Storytellers, Zondervan, 2000, p.69.

The Solution to Our Biggest Problems

What if the solution to our society’s biggest issues has been right under our noses for the past two thousand years? When Jesus was asked to reduce everything in the Bible into one command he said: Love God with everything you have and love your neighbor as yourself. What if he meant that we should love our actual neighbors?

You know, the people who live right next door. The problem is that we have turned this simple idea into a nice saying. We put it on bumper stickers and T-shirts and go on with our lives without actually putting it into practice. But the fact is, Jesus has given us a practical plan that we can actually put into practice, a plan that has the potential to change the world. The reality is, though, that the majority of Christians don’t even know the names of most of their neighbors.

Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside your Door, Baker, pp.15-16.

Rising GNP and Lowering GNH

There has been a paradigm shift going on in neighborhoods in the United States since the end of WWII. For decades before the 1940s, neighborhoods were places where people were known and were active. Whether a rural community, a suburban street, an urban block, or an apartment complex, neighbors commonly saw themselves as having a shared life in their neighborhood that naturally involved celebrating together, helping each other, and looking after the neighborhood.

But that’s been changing. The evidence suggests that “America’s dramatic economic growth during the post-WWII era has been accompanied by substantial increases in individualism and materialism.” We may be experiencing unprecedented levels of prosperity, but our social fabric is falling apart.

While our GNP (Gross National Product) has been doing quite well, our GNH (Gross National Happiness) has not. The GNH is an index of seventy-two indicators that seek to measure well-being and flourishing, and our country’s GNH has been dropping steadily.

Research shows we have lower self-reported happiness, poorer interpersonal relationships, higher levels of anxiety and depression, and greater antisocial behavior. As we focus more on material things and less on relationship, chronic loneliness has become more common in our neighborhoods. And because we are more isolated from our neighbors, we have turned to purchasing the care we once received from neighbors. The net result: neighborhoods are no longer places where we are known and active.

Taken from The Hopeful Neighborhood: What Happens When Christians Pursue the Common Good by Don Everts Copyright (c) 2020 by Don Everts. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com


Togetherness & The Genius of the Gold-Saddle Goatfish

The gold-saddle goatfish is a small fish native to Hawaiian reefs with a distinctive coloring. In the past few years, divers in Hawaii have come across a fascinating phenomenon. During their regular dives, they’ve begun to notice a large fish with the same brilliant colors as the gold-saddle goatfish. Upon closer inspection, the divers realized this wasn’t one large fish, but in fact a school of gold saddle fish swimming together in such impressive unity and in such a perfect fish-shaped pattern as to appear like one imposingly large fish, not to be trifled with. It turns out, when the gold-saddle fish feels threatened, they join together, unified in fish formation to appear much larger.

The gold saddle goatfish provides an important lesson for those facing threats. Do we turn inward, trusting only ourselves? Or do we “huddle up” with our neighbors, our friends, or even our churches to face the oncoming storm, be it a global pandemic or something of a local variety?

Stuart Strachan Jr.

An Unexpected Messenger

In 2009 I (Dave) gathered a group of twenty lead pastors in the Denver area so we could think, dream, and pray about how our churches might join forces to serve our community. We invited our local mayor, Bob Frie, to join us, and we asked him a simple question: How can we as churches best work together to serve our city?

The ensuing discussion revealed a laundry list of social problems similar to what many cities face: at-risk kids, areas with dilapidated housing, child hunger, drug and alcohol abuse, loneliness, elderly shut-ins with no one to look in on them. The list went on and on. Then the mayor said something that inspired our joint-church movement: “The majority of the issues that our community is facing would be eliminated or drastically reduced if we could just figure out a way to become a community of great neighbors.”

Jay Pathak & Dave Runyon, The Art of Neighboring: Building Genuine Relationships Right Outside your Door, Baker, pp.18-19.

What Trees Can Teach us About Good Neighborhoods

There is a paradigm shift going on in the realm of forestry. For years there had been a consensus among ecologists that all trees were independent operators, each tree an island unto itself, the forest a place of limited, scarce resources where trees competed with each other. Trees were seen as “disconnected loners, competing for water, nutrients and sunlight, with the winners shading out the losers and sucking them dry.”

But that’s beginning to change. When ecologist Suzanne Simard discovered underground connectivity between trees in her field experiments, scientists began to see the forest through new eyes. Scientists like Simard and German forester Peter Wohlleben began to study the many ways trees are connected through underground fungal networks and share resources with each other.

If we could pull back the forest floor, we would actually see white and yellow threads crisscrossed and going off in multiple directions connecting each tree with an abundance of resources embedded in its neighbor trees throughout the forest.

Given what we read in Genesis 1 about God’s gift-giving, perhaps it’s time for Christians to undergo a similar paradigm shift in how we see our neighborhoods. For years there has been a tendency to view our neighborhoods (especially historically struggling places) through a skeptical lens: we notice problems first, and we assume resources are scarce in a community. Thus we’re tempted to ride in with truckloads of resources to save the struggling community. The usual service experience starts by looking for problems.

But what if that changed? What if we became (at least) as interested in the gifts God is entrusting to the people and neighborhood as we were in the apparent problems of a neighborhood? What if we followed the lead of Genesis (and the confirmed insights of community development experts) and paused to behold the gifts in us and around us, and took our cues for pursuing the common good from that abundance? What if we assumed God has already given us and our neighbors an abundance of gifts rather than a scarcity of gifts?

Taken from The Hopeful Neighborhood: What Happens When Christians Pursue the Common Good by Don Everts Copyright (c) 2020 by Don Everts. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com

Where Does My Validation Come From?

As Christians, we do not need to justify who we are; Jesus took care of that. We are loved and forgiven. When I’m tempted to advertise my accomplishments, qualifications, or résumés when talking with my neighbors, I try to remember that my need for validation has already been met. This means I do not need to look to my neighbors for approval. I can love free of an agenda to win anyone to my side. My job is to love God and love others.

Alexandra Kuykendall, Loving My Actual Neighbor, Baker Publishing Group, 2019, p. 34.

See also The City, Community, Home, Relationships

Still Looking for inspiration?

Consider checking out our quotes page on Neighbor. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!

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